You may not have thought of this before, but your feet are your foundation – literally. Oftentimes your feet are your singular connection with the ground, and as anyone who has ever had foot pain can attest, it really can affect the rest of your body through movement compensations and discomfort. No doubt, your feet take a pounding on your runs and your workouts. And while footwear selection can play a large part in foot soreness (too small/tight/and incorrect shoes for your activity and foot type are all culprits) if you spend enough time on your feet logging in miles or intense training sessions, your feet are bound to get sore, tight and achy.
Relief is on its way! I’ve got some simple exercises you can do every day and especially before/after each run or workout that will help bring relief and help stave off common foot injuries. Feet and toes that get regular movement, mobility and stretching are bound to be healthier, happier and less achy feet. As if that didn’t sound good enough, these exercises and stretches can also help with issues such as plantar fasciitis, bunions, hammer toes and general foot issues. Talk about a win! And only takes minutes a day for a little self foot care love. It’s all about understanding body mechanics.
Let’s start by Stretching your Toes: I’m willing to bet that for most of you reading this, your feet are encased in shoes the majority of the day. Think of your shoes as a typical New York city apartment; tiny, cramped and most likely overpriced. But I digress. Your shoes – both the ones you run and train in as well as the ones you spend the rest of your time in – aren’t allowing your toes the room they need to spread. So let’s create some space, shall we?
Toe spreading can be done both passively and actively. Passive toe spreading allows your toes to go along for the ride; you’ll be using outside means (socks, toe spreaders your fingers, your significant other’s’ fingers) to get the job done.
Passively spreading your toes creates space between the joints, increases blood flow to the tissues, and also preps the area for greater range of motion. An easy way to start it to hold hands with your feet (awww…so sweet!) by working a finger between each toe, hold this position, with 30-60 seconds per foot a great place to start.
As good as this is for you, if your feet are especially tight, it might not feel so great in the beginning. It’s not uncommon to feel tightness or even cramping in your toes or the soles of your feet when doing this. The key is to ease into it, start with smaller dividers for the toes and work your way up (for example, some of my football player clients with large, very tight feet actually start with just their pinky fingers, taking time with each toe before moving to the next one). There are also socks available which help creates space, and are great to sleep in, too!
Once you’ve started passive toe spreading, it’s time to add active toe spreading. Now the pressure is on, because this takes skill!
A good way to think about doing this is to place your hands in front of you, palms down, fingers together. Now, spread your fingers apart, as far as you can go. THAT is what you want to do with your toes. By spreading all the toes away from each other you help to strengthen the muscles of the foot. You can practice this standing or sitting (I recommend both!) but it’s important to be barefoot to allow for the greatest amount of space available to your toes. Like the passive work above, you might feel some resistance and even some cramping in your foot/toes. That’s ok; if it happens, simple back off, do a few of the exercises below and come back to it. You might also not have much “spread” in the beginning. No sweat! It took a long time for your feet to get as tight and stiff as they likely are, so be patient when it comes to building mobility and strength.
Now that we are working on spreading our toes, let’s level up and look at lifting our toes. Easy Peasy you say, right? Ahhh…not so fast! The goal here is to lift and lower each toe individually. Ha! This exercise will help restore full movement and function to the foot. As you lift each toe, try to keep it pointing straight ahead, not pointing towards the other toes, and be sure that the ball of the foot stays in contact with the floor, as it’s easy to cheat by rolling your foot rather than lifting your toes. Once you’ve tried that, you’ll see it’s quite a bit deal harder than you think. All the piggies want to go together, right? Well, work on this one, as the goal is to get the toes to move independent of each other.
Another great exercise to relieve sore and tired feet is to achieve Arch Stimulation using a ball and a half ball. It’s important to use both, as one will allow you to roll along the foot (think of it as foam rolling for your soles!) and the other will allow you to pinpoint and focus on specific areas needing relief.
It’s easy to create your own half ball; I like the pink high bounce balls found at the dollar store. Simply cut them in half and you are ready to go. When using the half ball, make sure to keep your planted firmly on the floor and the foot pointing forward. Imagine your foot broken up into a grid of three rows and three columns, from the base of the toes to the heel bone. Take a minute or two as your work your way down the grid, allowing your foot to drape on the ball. Spend about 2-5 minutes per foot.
When it comes to the ball, a tennis or lacrosse ball works great, but if you find your foot is especially sensitive, a high bounce pinky ball works good, too. Hold in various positions along the foot, especially in the heel, under the first metatarsal (big toe) and along the arch as you work your way from the back of the foot to the front. Think of this as a foam roller for your foot! Do each foot for about 2-5 minutes.
Next, it’s time to do the Calf Stretch! Now, I can hear you now… “If my issue is tight, sore feet, why on Earth would I stretch my calves?!” Ah! Because it’s all connected! Tight calves can have a direct relationship and effect on tight tissues of the feet; tight calves usually go hand and hand with tight feet. And tight feet are achy and prone to injury! So why not try and lessen the load a bit and enjoy a “two-fer”; work on lengthening the tissues and muscles of the calf (get ready for an ahhhhh moment!) and reduce loads on the feet?
Keeping feet straight, with heel of the stretching foot down, place the ball of your foot on a half dome roller or on a rolled up yoga mat or towel. While keeping your pelvis neutral, work on inching the non-stretching foot forward as you feel the stretch of the foot on the half dome (in the case of the single foot calf stretch) and if doing the double calf stretch (with both feet on the towel/half dome)it’s helpful to stand facing a chair and place your hands on the back of it, bending slightly from the hips to get a stretch all the way up your hamstrings. The key is to EASE into this, and respect your body’s range of motion; do not try to aggressively force yourself through this stretch. Hold for 30-60 seconds.
A great way to round out your foot care is to do the Top of the Foot Stretch
This is usually done standing, but can be done seated as well. Reach your foot behind you, tucking the toes under. The goal is to tuck all five toes, but if you can’t straightaway, don’t worry as you’ll gain more range of motion as you continue with this stretch. It is important to keep the ankle straight and not allow it to roll outwards or inwards (doing this in front of mirror is most helpful so you can keep an eye on that!). If your foot cramps, back off and try again.
Last but not least, try and go barefoot as much as possible (make sure to ease into it) when around the house or outdoors when safe, litter and debris free areas are available. I make it a habit to go to a grassy soccer field several times a week and run around barefoot, doing some simple drills and skipping, to allow my feet to be shoe free. The soft grass (sand works great too!) acts like a massage for my feet, while also allowing me to work on strengthening my feet without the confines of restrictive shoes.
So there you have it! Some easy ways to show your feet some love. Your feet work hard for you during each and every run and training session, whether you think of them or not. They are the very foundation of your body – isn’t it time to show them a little love?